Interview with J.P. Brown of Hellwitch

Interview with J.P. Brown of Hellwitch

You joined Hellwitch in 1994. How did that come about?
I was 18 years old, in Kendall, Florida, looking for a band to play in. Scouring the local guitar stores and magazines for ads befitting of my style, I found one in an old local magazine called the “Rag”. “Seeking bass player for a touring Death Metal band”, was the headline that would forever dominate my destiny. Of course not being a bass player, nor intending to be, I called Pat, declaring my virtuosity, speed, and diction on the guitar, to be that much better than their own guitar players. At that time, I had no idea I was speaking to the Godfather of Death Metal, nor did he let on at any time during our conversation. I asked that he consider me for the role of 2nd guitar. He’s since told me that he was impressed with my matter of fact attitude, diction, and was looking forward to thoroughly shredding me, which led him to invite me for an audition. Pat took his time wiping the floor with me, showing me every idiosyncrasy I missed, and explaining why these subtle nuances in phrasing and execution painted the organic canvas that was Hellwitch.

What is your musical background and how did you feel it could fit in HW?
I grew up listening to Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer, Kreator, and everything thrash I could get my hands on. Inheriting a strong background in classical, latin, rock, folk, and pop from my parents, I began developing my own style after about a year of playing guitar. Somewhere around 15 years old, I met you through a mutual friend, Edwin Mesa. It was at that point that you had told me that I was playing Death Metal and should check out some similar bands… and then came Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower, Carcass, and the almighty Chuck Schuldiner’s, Death!

Pat and I both idolized Dave Mustaine in our formative years. It’s a bond that we carry 26 years later. I enjoyed writing technical, off the wall, multi harmony parts. Patrick and I fed off each other immediately and spent countless hours writing most of The Epitome of Disgrace within the first 2 years together.

Do you feel that your playing may have influenced the band as time went on or do you feel it may have had an influence on you?
I’ve always had my own style of writing but Patrick has definitely influenced me. Most of the parts I have written for Hellwitch have been a compromise between what I originally intended and what we could play live together while singing. Pat has always had a vision of where he wants Hellwitch to go and what Hellwitch should sound like. Our joint endeavors are evident in the songwriting during the Epitome EP, Omnipotent Convocation, and the At Rest EP’s.

What would you say are your more profound influences? Why?
I’d say my early influences were really classical. I had grown up listening to larger than life orchestra’s, symphonies, and latin music in my living room. Once I started playing guitar, I listened to those who interested me, brought something new to the table, and cared about their musical presentation. I absolutely refused to listen to demos that no one cared to make intelligible or listenable (exactly the opposite of Patrick).

Early on, Dave Mustaine’s playing and songwriting were incredibly influential. Thereafter I’d say Trey from Morbid Angel did quite a bit for me.

What about the bands you like the least music wise…
Machinehead, Oasis, Dillinger Escape Plan, The Beatles… I’d say there are many in this category. There are certain things I refuse to listen to on principle. I can’t listen to people scream and cry about the life they weren’t given and the inequities of the world they don’t have the courage to correct. I wasn’t keen on the 80’s hair metal scene. I can’t stand most country music. There’s really a great amount of content I’m not interested in.

The band’s releases tend to focus on more technical guitar approaches. In regards to your guitar work, what goes on during the songwriting process?
Our songwriting process takes years. We work on parts until we can’t anymore. We’ll put them away, listen to them years later, and then decide if it’s still worth listening to. I’ll send hundreds of riffs to Patrick and we’ll whittle them down to 20 or so. From there, 2 or 3 might make the cut. With regards to my guitar work, I like to write in layers. I’ll have several ideas in the same stream of conscience and attempt to put them together. Many of our larger chorus sections have been written that way. I see guitar playing in pictures. I like to paint canvases and remember them that way

Do you think your guitar playing has changed over time?
Absolutely. There is always a core that has been me. There has always been that signature sound that I hear in my recordings over time. My playing evolves with my life experience though. Music is art and art is expression. It’s only fitting that my expression should change with my experiences.

With distances between everyone due to the fucking virus, do feel that it is difficult to compose new songs?
Pat and I have had a considerable distance between us over the past several years. I live in the Atlanta area and he lives in South Florida. We’ve made use of technology to share ideas, teach each other parts, and communicate over the years. Corona has stopped all shows, live rehearsals, and visitations, but has had no bearing on our songwriting.

Please detail your experience with former members throughout the years as have come and gone. Any difficult transitions?
We’ve had many former members throughout my tenure. Transitions have always been difficult because of the time and energy spent teaching new members the existing songs. Every one of them has a story and some are much richer than others.

Typically when someone is about to leave we’ll receive all sorts of ridiculous behavior and exorbitant demands for money. There is always a great build up to the exit which results in the most terribly entertaining stories.

When one hears older thrash metal and death metal stuff, it often had sparks of originality. While there are many bands in similar approach, how would you compare what your playing is compared to other bands?
In the earlier years of the band, Hellwitch had a very punk influence. We have always sounded very different than our peers. We’ve never been in a hurry, never had to worry about outside forces dictating our writing process, and never had deadlines. We’ve made a conscience effort to write music that we believe sounds different. Our music today is characterized by fast tempo’s, frantic chord changes, intricate riffs, and lots of melodies.

How would you describe your recording experiences with songs? Anything you look forward to or dislike?
Recording has always been a challenge for us. Patrick is a staunch believer in an organic canvas as it pertains to music. There’s a lot of wiggle room on some parts that can turn into timing issues when recording. We’ve spent many hours in front of recording engineers reviewing, rewriting, and re-recording parts. I have found our best recordings have been mapped out with a click track, piece by piece, and recorded in layers, with live guitar amps and microphones.

What are your thoughts on the use of pre-programmed “death metal” pedals. It does make many aspiring bands to sound way too similar. How do you feel about recording 20 years ago compared to the technology available now?
With regards to guitar sound and tone, I find much of that comes from the player and the performance. I have played many pedals and found that they don’t translate well into recordings or live performances. The fidelity of a full tube amplifier is unparalleled. My signal chain typically consists of a guitar, a noise gate, and a full tube amplifier. When touring, depending on the gear, I may use an overdrive pedal in front of the tube amp to get enough gain, but I typically will play with my Engl and nothing else.

As for recording technology, 20 years ago seems life a lifetime ago. We recently attempted re-amping for the first time. I found that the performances lost much of the nuance that our live performances provided. The EP sounds great, but it doesn’t have the feel that the album before it did.

There are limitless possibilities with technology now. It’s much easier and cheaper to record on your own and get music out to fans. Finding experienced engineers has become a much more costly endeavor as a result of this. Finding the correct balance between analogue and digital seems more critical than ever to me. I’m really interested in using the combination of live amplifiers, tape to record on, and digitally assisted editing (click tracks and editing for the tape).

What’s your take on the term “Old School” for some forms of metal that started in the 80s and 90s. Do you define your guitar playing to be in a certain style from that period?
Old School writing, referring to the origins of death metal or other subgenres, is indicative of the roots of that form. As for my writing, it has always evolved and while there is an evident draw from my influences, it’s not specifically them. I’ve always incorporated a very layered sound and love to move my fingers across the fretboard.

If you had an open choice of musicians from anywhere to work with, who would you pick?
There’s quite a few. I’ve always wanted to record with Rob Barret, Lee Harrison, Christian Alvestam, Bjorn Strid, Jay Black, Phil Fasciana, and Derek Roddy.

Tell a story about the shittiest thing that has happened while you have been in the band.
We were playing a last minute gig for a friend in West Palm Beach. The guy working sound was high and dropped a beer into my amplifier. It cost me $400 to fix and re-tube that amplifier. That was an expensive lesson.

Favorite places you have played at
The places that I enjoyed playing at most are usually because we had the best live mix. So if I can hear the band (not very common in my experiences) I typically like the place.

One of my favorite places to play was Puerto Rico. It was a nice homecoming.

When playing live, and as a whole band, do you stick to the same way of playing songs live or do you take some additional liberties with them?
The only liberties taken are those that are not intended lol.

When you would play live, which song riffs would you say hit the spot for you in enjoyment?
I’ve always loved playing Dawn of Apostasy, Days of Nemesis, Sought to Beguile, and Vicious Avidity live. More recently, I’ve enjoyed playing the harmonies and riffs on Megalopalyptic Confine.

Are there places that you feel are more welcoming to death metal than others in the United States?
South Florida has always been extremely welcoming. I think Ohio, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, Texas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and New York have always been pleased to see us.

The last few years have seen the passing away of many metal musicians. One didn’t remotely think of those things back in the early days. What are your feelings on seeing the “Old Guard” stepping aside as time moves on?
I guess it’s a natural progression, just not one I enjoy seeing. I wish I’d seen more of them earlier on. As a fan, I try and see as many shows as possible. I love metal and live music. I still haven’t seen Bolt Thrower live…

You haven’t released anything since 2017.
I have not.

You have been endorsed by guitar companies
I had a long standing endorsement with Bernie Rico Jr guitars and was one of his first endorsees at some point around 2005 or 6. Sadly neither Bernie, nor his company is with us today.

I’ve been an Engl amps endorser since around the same time as well. I can’t thank Christian and his team for being so supportive throughout the landscape of my career.

I’m currently endorsing Celestion speakers and have a couple touring cabinets with neodymium speakers in them. They weight absolutely nothing and sound kick ass. Can’t say enough about them.

I did have a custom string guage set with LaBella for some time. It was an .09-.48 guage 6 string set that I used for standard E tuning. I’ve since reverted back to .09-.46 to ensure emergency string changes on tour weren’t catastrophic with tremolo systems.

I’ve had several other smaller deals over the years, but these have been the most personal.

Touring is not something that we might not see in the near future. Anything in the works for new material?
We do have new material in the works and much of it has already been through pre-production.

Have you had any offers to play in other countries?
We did have a tour in Asia 2 years ago and Puerto. The other offers we’ve had in the past have either been to financially risky or in between line-up changes.

Talk about your favorite guitar riffs and why
Mega-Dave has written many of them. I love the sound of his earlier, darker material. There was so much anger and speed in those riffs. Patrick and I both bow to the” Loved to Deth” riff. The first two Megadeth albums were just pure gold to me.  I love the first three Morbid Angel albums. Trey’s work was so creative and inspirational at that time. He had so many classical influences working throughout those riffs. I really love John Sykes work on the Whitesnake albums. His staccato riffs and all those bends and slides were just killer.

Your take on underground musicians that achieved a high level of success like Sean Rinehart and Paul Masvidal (Cynic days) who came from the same city as you, Miami.
I celebrate successes. I think that there has been a lot of talent from Florida over the years. I’m particularly partial to it.

What are your best memories of the Fl metaHomel scene?
Warehouse shows, Miami beach shows, rehearsals, there were so many experiences that I look back on and think about now. I saw Malevolent at a warehouse party, Demonamacy at the Plus 5, Cynic practicing next to me, Sepultura (original), Sadus, and Obituary on one bill, Morbid Angel when they kicked ass!

hellwitch.com

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